The Beilers opened their home to 70 strangers, with loKal, a Lancaster-based tour guide company, and Experience Bridge, an at-home dinner experience. York Daily Record
Lillian Geisler, a native of Millersville, Pennsylvania, graduated in 1936 from Millersville State Teachers College where her father was the chef at the college’s dining hall. When she accepted a teaching position in a one-room schoolhouse on Stormstown Road by Snake Hill northeast of Lancaster, little did she know it would require using a colorful mix of German and English to instruct her pupils. The old schoolhouse no longer stands, but the legacy of Miss Geisler among her Amish pupils and their families would live on for generations.
Although most inhabitants of Lancaster County in the 1930s knew a smattering of “Dutchisms,” such as – ‘Schpritz the hose once-t’ and ‘That nix-noots is so doplich’ – Lillian accepted the challenge to teach first through eighth grade students, communicating in a language mix they comprehended. With last names such as King, Stolzfus, and Glick, the students of Stormstown School taught her words such as ferhoodled (mixed up), rutschig (fidgety, squirmy), and schooslich (messy), and she in turn taught them the three R’s – readin’, (w)ritin’, and (a)rithmetic.
Years later Lillian married Walter Kauffman who had grown up speaking some “Dutch” on the family farm in New Holland. Lillian and Walt raised three sons in Lancaster, exposing them to the clever witticisms and uniqueness of this rich form of German. During our formative years, Mom (Lillian) and Dad (Walt) took us to Amish farms for ice cream, produce, and socializing where they would interact using Dutch words. At home it was common to hear my mother say – Kum sitz a bissel un essen. ‘Come sit a little and eat,’ Sei nix so rutschig! ‘Don’t be so fidgety!’ and Redd up your room! Hearing Pennsylvania Dutch and using some of the colorful expressions has as equally a feel-good experience as does enjoying such foods as bottboi ‘pot pie,’ lattwarick un schmierkaese ‘apple butter and cottage cheese,’ and Melassichriwwelkuche ‘shoe-fly pie.’
This rich blend of idiom via contact languages, dialects, religious traditions, and new world creations has added to the amazing quilt-work of American heritage over a span of three hundred years. Although its seeds were sown in Pennsylvania with the first immigrants to settle in 1683 near Philadelphia in what they called Germantown, the language would evolve and spread to other parts of the new world. The children of the nearly 81,000 German-speaking immigrants who came from central Europe to America from 1683 to 1775 became the first speakers of a dialect that would grow into a unique language known as Pennsylvania Dutch.
Today, Pennsylvania Dutch is spoken by over 300,000 in such states as Maryland, New York, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin, and in Ontario, Canada. The highest concentration of speakers is in Pennsylvania in Berks, Lancaster, Lebanon, and Lehigh Counties. In its 300 year history, Pennsylvania Dutch was once spoken by a half million speakers. By some estimates the language is gradually losing speakers, whereas others show it’s gaining speakers. The disparity comes in part from the U.S. Census which previously asked what language an individual speaks. Some wrote German and others wrote Dutch.
What exactly is Pennsylvania Dutch? Is it Dutch? Is it a recognized language, or a dialect, or perhaps just a mish-mash of languages brought to the colonies from Europe?
Although the dialects clearly came from German spoken in the Rhineland-Palatinate region (in German, Rheinland-Pfalz) of present-day southwest Germany, as well as the Alsace of France and Switzerland, the immigrants mainly sailed from Dutch-speaking Holland on Dutch ships. When these regions were once a patchwork of duchies, states, and kingdoms of the Holy Roman Empire the Germanic people were referred to as ‘dietsc’ from Old Dutch or ‘diutsch’ from Middle High German. While the myth persists that the word Dutch in Pennsylvania Dutch is a corruption or mispronunciation of the word Deitsch ‘German,’ a likely explanation holds that to the English in the 18th and 19th centuries, anyone from the German-speaking regions was called Dutch. Yet,
even today, despite the fact scholars prefer to call them German, many farmers and folk from the Dutch heartland prefer to call their own language and themselves Dutch. Hence the widespread references to Dutch and Dutchmen.
As war raged in the colonies, in 1777 Johann David Schöpf, a German who served as chief surgeon to a regiment of Hessian troops, wrote “the language used by our German-speaking countrymen (in America) is a pitifully broken mish-mash of English and German.” Whether mish-mash or not, the beauty of language is in the people who speak it and the culture associated with it. Despite Dr. Schöpf’s view, the evolving dialect of German in colonial Pennsylvania was becoming a distinct language. Key features separating languages from dialects, include: whether the language is widely spoken, has a developed grammar and vocabulary, and has a rich literary tradition. Pennsylvania Dutch, while originating as dialect, has all of these features of a standard, distinct, language.
Not all speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch came to America seeking freedom from religious persecution, although many did. Douglas Madenford, a modern-day expert, instructor, and proponent of Pennsylvania Dutch language and culture through his YouTube video series Your PA Dutch Minute, says “many immigrants came here in search of a better life and land.” According to Madenford, today’s speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch fall into two categories: sectarian (Old Order Amish, Old Order Mennonite) and non-sectarian (Lutheran, other religion, or unaffiliated with religion). Today in Pennsylvania, Lancaster County is home to most of the sectarian speakers and Berks County is where most of the non-sectarian speakers live.
In the early-mid 20th century Pennsylvania Dutch was spoken in parts of York County, primarily in the eastern part where a young man, Bill Frey, was known as En Yarrick Kaundi Deitscher ‘A York County German.’ An extraordinarily personable and outgoing individual, Frey grew up in the 1920s-1930s speaking native-level Pennsylvania Dutch on the family farm in East Prospect. Having studied German, Russian and other languages at Dickinson College, he completed his doctorate at University of Illinois where he wrote a 478-page dissertation entitled, The German Dialect of Eastern York County. In 1941 Dr. J. William Frey presented a paper to the Linguistic Society of America on “The Phonemics of English Loan Words in eastern York County Pennsylvania Dutch.”
In the early 1940s, under the pen name Der Glay Bill ‘Little Bill,’ Frey published several items on York County Dutch in the York Dispatch and he sang Dutch songs on radio stations and in other venues in Central Pennsylvania. Drawing upon his York County dialect, in 1949 he helped found the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center in Lancaster.
Both scholar and country Dutchman, Frey defined the language through what he called a philological trinity of — 1. Palatine German dialect, 2. American High German used in Lutheran and Reformed churches in the 1700s, and 3. American English as it was borrowed into the German-based language. The Amish, according to Frey, are unique in that they speak Amish Pennsylvania Dutch, Amish High German used in religious services, and Pennsylvania Dutch English in dealing with the general public.
The latter “Dutchified” form employs German pronunciation of English plus grammatical constructions that give rise to such expressions as Throw the cow over the fence some hay; Outen the lights; and, Eat yourself full. People growing up in counties where Dutch is or was prominent, use many of these expressions and pronunciation (for example, accent on the word ‘years’ in ‘My sister is 10 YEARS old’) without knowing the influence of Pennsylvania Dutch on English of the region. Lillian Geisler Kauffman frequently used the expression ‘The hurrieder I go the behinder I get.’ And when her summer vacation was ending, she always said, ‘Ach, my off is all!’ May we all enjoy a bissel of the colorful language around us. Long live Pa Dutch!
Charles A. Kauffman is an adjunct professor of world languages at York College of Pennsylvania.
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